owlmoose: (lady business - kj)
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The first adult epic fantasy book I remember reading was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This was many years before I became familiar with The Lord of the Rings (I attempted The Hobbit when I was eight or nine, but it didn't take), so I didn't notice its derivative aspects; instead, I got sucked into a sprawling story of good and evil and standing up for what's right even when you feel small and powerless, featuring swashbuckling adventures and some appealing characters. Naturally, I continued on with the series, and I loved the second book, The Elfstones of Shannara, even more. The story feels more original than the first, it includes more female characters of significance, and the bittersweet ending is wonderful. I read at least a few more books in the series, but these are the two I came back to again and again.

So when the television adaptation was announced, I was both excited and skeptical. Excited, because of course it's exciting to have a childhood favorite brought to life, but skeptical for all the reasons you might expect: what would they change, and therefore mess up? How could they take such a sprawling story and make it into something coherent for television? (At least it was a TV series -- trying to condense even one of these books to movie length seemed an impossible task. We're talking doorstop fantasy here, especially the first book.) Would they go the Game of Thrones route and make everything unnecessarily grimdark? Many things to worry about there.

Still, I had meant to watch it, but I forgot to record the first episode, and then never got around to catching up. Recently, though, our friend [twitter.com profile] SFbluestocking reminded me of the series and mentioned that she's enjoying it, especially the second season, so I decided I'd give it a shot. Although I have lots (lots) of quibbles with it, overall I'm finding it a good and thoughtful adaptation, better than the source material in some ways, and one of the better epic fantasy shows airing right now.

One of my concerns was alleviated right away, when I learned that the first season was an adaptation of the second book rather than the first. I thought it was a good choice when I first heard about it, and the decision held up upon watching. As I mentioned, Elfstones is a smaller story with fewer plotlines and significant characters, a more gender-balanced cast, and not as many obvious Tolkien parallels. The events of The Sword of Shannara (altered, but recognizable) are instead relegated to backstory, which gives the first season a solid backbone without having to actually tell that part of the story.

The casting is excellent. The central trio of Amberle, Wil, and Eretria have great chemistry, which is important because theirs is the plotline that needs to carry the show. Normally I get annoyed with love triangles, but this one works okay for me, because all three of them have meaningful bonds that go outside the "will they or won't they"/"two girls fighting over the same boy" tropes. Also, I dare anyone to show me a love triangle that would be better solved by an OT3. I was skeptical about the casting of Allanon at first, because he isn't supposed to be sexy -- he's supposed to be a cloaked, bearded, remote, occasionally terrifying father figure. (I always pictured him roughly as Christopher Lee.) That said, I accept that a TV adaptation like this was never not going to have a sexy Allanon, and given that, Manu Bennett was an excellent choice. He's got the brooding and mysterious aspects down, and he feels very true to the character from the books -- while being very easy on the eyes.

Not every change works so well. Cephalo is a more central character in the show than he was in the books, which is baffling to me. It's like reading A Song of Ice and Fire and deciding that the most interesting characters are Robb Stark, Ramsey Snow, and Bronn the sellsword... oh wait. Anyway, instead of being a relatively minor antagonist, Cephalo spends a lot of time on screen, and the tone of his character shifts wildly. It's as though the writers want to make him both a lovable rogue and an amoral thief and rapist (literally -- he attempts to force himself on Amberle and is only stopped by a rescue), and they give him a wholly inappropriate redemption arc. I'm pretty much done with the whole "threaten rape to establish evil" trope, and this show pulls that trick with two separate characters. It's tiresome, and straight out of the most annoying pages of the GoT playbook. This show makes various attempts to set itself apart from other fantasy shows, and I wish they'd done it here, too. (I don't recall rape threats being a thing in the books, but it's been long enough since I re-read that I might be forgetting something.)

My other main complaint about the story is the pacing. It takes four full episodes of a ten episode season for the epic quest story to really get started, and perhaps as a result the last couple of episodes felt rushed, a lot of things are never properly resolved, and some important confrontations don't get the space and gravity they deserve.

I felt the odd focus in other ways, too. The Reaper, for one, was not nearly scary enough, and it was dispatched too easily. It's supposed to be the most terrifying creature in existence, not a vaguely shadowy figure with horns that's killed by a fall -- one our heroes survive without much trouble. (I found the Changeling far more frightening.) Wil also mastered the elfstones awfully fast, with what seemed like little cost to his healer's soul (disappointing in part because I thought they had set up his internal conflict so well in the first few episodes), and I kept waiting for them to call the Wingriders to get them back to Arborlon. I wonder now why they even bothered introducing Perk -- it's like setting up a Chekhov's gun that never fires. I also didn't know how much I wanted to see Allanon's epic air battle with the Dagda Mor until I realized we weren't going to get it, but I can forgive that one because I found their final confrontation in front of the Ellcrys satisfying enough.

Admittedly, it's hard to separate which of these issues are legitimate storytelling weaknesses and which are just a case of "but it wasn't like that in the book" -- a complaint I try not to make for its own sake when talking about adaptations. And I liked a number of things better than what I remember from the books. Amberle, in particular, felt more like a fully developed character with her own motivations and plot arc and less like a MacGuffin. I also appreciated that Eretria had a unique role to play at the Bloodfire, rather than mostly being along for the ride. I was also a big fan of the setting and production design. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic world, but the hints that this Earth is our own are subtle and few. The first episode of the show, meanwhile, opens on a shot of an overgrown and half-collapsed Seattle Space Needle, and the detritus of our modern world is often used effectively. I particularly enjoyed one episode set in a high school that had been preserved, a snapshot of a graduation party that any American alive today would recognize. It doesn't always work, but when it hits, it hits well, and serves to distinguish this show visually and in tone from a lot of the other fantasy shows out there.

So, do I recommend it? If you were a fan of the books, definitely yes -- on that level I found it mostly satisfying, even if some of the big set pieces were missing. If not, I still think anyone who enjoys epic fantasty will find it worth checking out. The second season, currently five episodes in, continues on with the current characters instead of jumping ahead to the third book (which takes place a generation later), and I've found myself liking it even more. Many of the pacing issues have improved, a bunch of actors of color have been added to the cast, and I'm quite curious to see where this (mostly) new story goes. Thanks again to Bridget for the rec!

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